Oh, Mary

Get Out of the Bunker.

June 25, 2018
Roger van Oosten

Every company has been visited by a crisis, perhaps even one that threatened the company’s very existence. There are many triggers for a communications crisis: the death of an executive, a stock price fall, malfeasance, labor issues, a natural disaster that halts production, a policy change that lowers profit expectations, employee conduct, careless use of social media by any employee. There are many types of crises.

The natural company reaction is often to close down outward communications, hunker down and ride out the storm. In the communications business we call that “going into the bunker.” In the past, that might well have been a strong move. Media was fragmented, news spread slowly. Time would pass and the story would fade.

But now, when nearly everyone has a camera or video camera in his or her pocket and news spreads like wildfire through social channels, hiding in a bunker is a dangerous game. In a crisis situation, silence is equated with guilt.

So companies need to engage and communicate, both internally and externally, with all audiences. But what does engagement look like?

Fortunately, even in a fragmented, swift moving media environment, there are tools and strategies on how a company can communicate in a crisis situation.

First, prepare your communications in advance of any crisis. While no one can predict when or what kind of crisis will come, there are effective ways to prepare a communication strategy.

Create a crisis plan. This involves dictating a hierarchy of response. Determine who will be the communications leader and spokesperson for any crisis. Make sure the company’s legal team, whether in house or not, is on the list. Build lists of 24/7 contact numbers for the entire executive team. Write out a script with hold responses, for example, “We do not have information on this issue. May we take down your number and call you back in 30 minutes?” Develop a chain of contact that includes all outward facing team members such as receptionists, sales staff, and customer service representatives. When the media calls, staff needs to respond with hold messages, take down the media’s information, and call the pre-determined crisis spokesperson and legal team.

In any crisis, information is key. When a crisis breaks, it is vitally important to acquire knowledge fast. Ironically, the media might be a good source of information. If a reporter has called, call them back as ask them for the details they have inquired about. Facts, provable facts, are like oxygen in a crisis. There are the breathing room companies need to get the story right.

Once the company has the story right, and has the proof, the executive team, communications team and the legal team must collaborate on crisis messaging, the four or five points that tell the companies response.

If the charge or information is incorrect, the response is simply the proof the company has that the story is wrong.

If the story the reporter or reporters are inquiring about is true, the key messages will provide a buffer until a company can determine a course of actions in response to the crisis. For example, if an executive has put a derogatory or insensitive comment on social, a company needs to put both put out a statement and reveal what actions the company will take in response.

Once the company has the story correct, and provable, there are tools they can use to engage with media so that coverage is balanced and fair.

Negotiation. In cases where a reporter has news about the company that is potentially damaging to a company, the company communications can negotiate with a reporter. The report, for example, can be offered an exclusive story on another part of the business in exchange for holding on negative news. At the same time, communications team can offer and exclusive full disclosure story with one reporter, including interviews and access. In this case, the story would be out there in the most controllable way.

Inclusion. Most reporters and media members, in my experience, try to get stories right. Make no mistake, there is biased media but it is the exception not the norm. Even if a reporter has negative news about the company, they are often willing to include a company’s statement. The important point is that bad news can’t be allowed to stand by itself. Respond with a statement and push the media to include all sides.

Taking inclusion to a further extreme, in the cases where negative stories run about a company and the company was not asked for a comment, the communications team must contact the media outlet running the story and ask them to pull the story pending receipt of an alternating view. In my career, I have been successful in getting inaccurate or one-sided stories pulled. Those negotiations are tough, but they can pay excellent dividends.

Don’t be afraid to apologize if it is warranted. Many crises have been needlessly extended because a company couldn’t or wouldn’t apologize. And honest apology can start to end a communications crisis. Swallow your pride and say you’re sorry and it won’t happen again.

Crisis communications work is dogged and time intensive. But protecting a company’s brand and reputation is a vital part of the commutations mandate.

I often tell my clients that being in a communications crisis is like standing waist deep in the ocean and looking back at the shore, with your back against the waves. Since you can’t see the waves, you can’t judge the strength of the waves. You are nervous, or at least apprehensive, of a wave’s potential impact. When the first wave hits and moves past you, there may be a sense of relief. The problem is, there are more waves coming in.

Communication crises come in waves. The worse the crisis, the more waves come in. You think you are clear but another one comes crashes in.

Turn around. Face the waves. Fearlessly respond to each one, no matter how many there are.

Remember, the communications team are the breakers that hold back the sea until the tide turns.